Before the puck even dropped, this game was already tilted in Merrimack’s favor.
Going into Friday’s contest, the Warriors (3-3-1, 0-0-1 Hockey East) already had seven regular season games to prepare for a Cornell team (0-1, 0-0 Ivy) who only had two exhibition tune-up games in preparation.
And it showed. The Red went down early as Merrimack’s Michael Babcock found the back of the net just under three minutes into the game on a hectic sequence that prevented senior goalie Mitch Gillam from corralling the puck.
“I thought we were a little tentative,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “We were a little antsy, and if you look at our blue line we have four guys who didn’t play a whole lot last year. It all starts at the blue line.”
Schafer and his staff said they were delighted to see senior alternate captain and forward Jeff Kubiak make his debut against Merrimack, after being sidelined for the two exhibition games and much of the preseason.
Kubiak told WHCU after the first period that he felt “a lot better than [he] thought [he] would,” but Schafer said the senior began to wear down through the second period due to his lack of preseason preparations.
The Warriors went on to add another goal in the period on a power play shot from the point. Three players — two donning a Cornell jersey — stood in front of Gillam, who was unable to react to the shot.
“We got on our heels. We had to kill three power plays and a five-on-three in the first friggin’ 11 minutes in the period,” Schafer added. “It was fast and furious.”
Merrimack was not done there, as just under halfway through the second Hampus Gustafsson got a weak shot passed Gillam — an uncharacteristic goal allowed by one of last year’s premier netminders.
Schafer wanted to give his team an energy boost to hopefully turn the game around, and he accomplished this objective by pulling Gillam and putting in backup junior Hayden Stewart.
“[Gillam] wasn’t playing very well and wasn’t getting the job done,” Schafer said. “We needed to not give up anymore and it was an easy decision.”
Throughout the preseason, Schafer has made clear that while Gillam holds the upper hand in the starting position, Stewart has been breathing down his neck and any slip up in the senior’s game could hand Stewart the starting job.
“I thought [Stewart] was great,” the head coach added. “He did a great job controlling the rebounds. He was square to the puck and solid and he played well.”
Schafer got exactly what he was hoping for from his squad.
Just about seven minutes after Stewart entered the game, senior forward Matt Buckles — who scored two goals against Brock last weekend — scored on a rebound while falling down for Cornell’s first goal of the year.
Throughout the rest of the game, Cornell had a much more refined game, but scoring came too little too late. Sophomore forward Mitch Vanderlaan cut the deficit to one goal on a slick shot from the slot with Stewart pulled for the extra attacker.
“We got it going,” Schafer said. “We came out in the second and I thought we had some great scoring chances and some great chances in the third.”
Vanderlaan’s goal came with just over two and a half minutes remaining, but the Red could not find the equalizer and the final buzzer rang with Cornell dropping its first game of the season.
The Achilles’ heel for Cornell so far this year has been penalties, which came back to haunt the team against Merrimack.
Cornell went to the penalty kill seven times, several of which came already a man down. Although the Red was awarded six power plays of its own, each team was able to convert only once. Schafer said he believes this performance is indicative of a general trend this season, where more penalities are called, making special teams all the more important.
“We’re trying to figure out what the hell a penalty is and what’s not a penalty,” he said. “I don’t even know where the calls came from. The story line in all of college hockey is the power play. I thought for the most part we were pretty disciplined.”
No penalty was bigger than sophomore forward Anthony Angello’s five-minute major for grabbing the facemask to go along with a game misconduct call, a sequence that Schafer called “a very undisciplined and selfish penalty.”
As last year’s leading scorer, Angello’s night was done at one of the most crucial points of the game, something Schafer said he hopes the young forward can learn from.
“It’s something that he can’t do,” Schafer said. “He’ll learn his lesson.”
The game was by no means a complete disappointment for Cornell. Rust is to be expected in the first game of the season, but the team topped Merrimack in shots, 35-33, totalling a whopping 18 in the second period.
Schafer said he liked some things he saw from his team at Merrimack but knows that with Ivy League play opening at Dartmouth next weekend, there is still plenty to build upon.
“We just have to play with more poise,” Schafer said. “We’ll get back to the drawing board [tomorrow].”